social business languageRecently, I was asked to write a review of Muhammad Yunus’ latest book on Social Business for the Stanford Social Innovation Review—the issue will be out shortly. Yunus, the undisputed founder of micro-finance, is someone for whom I have a great deal of admiration, in particular for his insight into innovation at the “bottom of the pyramid” and the benefits of lending mostly to women. I found the book an easy read, although I was somewhat concerned by the unnecessarily rigid limitations on what a social business could be.

Separately, I had occasion recently to look at the Wikipedia entry for "social business". What I found troubled me—the entry had become a summary of the book and an advert for Grameen. This concerns me for several reasons:
  • First, it seems contrary to the spirit of Wikipedia itself as an open forum where opposing viewpoints are aired.
  • Second, the concept of social enterprise and business dates back at least 150 years in the UK to the Rochdale pioneers, founders of the cooperative movement, and the great Victorian social businesses (like Cadbury’s) and the mutual societies. The Wikipedia entry contained no reference to these. Such historical revisionism gives me a slightly Orwellian chill.
  • Third,ClearlySo has an undeniable commercial interest in a broader definition. Many of our 1400+ social business and enterprise (SBEs) members from over 40 countries would be unnecessarily excluded from the ranks of social business, although this is how they see themselves.
  • Finally, there is a risk that by limiting the category only to non-profit businesses you undermine the basis for much social investment in the UK, Europe and the United States. This would be seriously damaging and seems unnecessary.
As deserving Nobel Peace Prize winners, one does not criticise Yunus or Grameen lightly. But an effort to impose rules that could exclude experimentation in the sector concerns me. It prompts three simple, but highly important questions:
  • Is there no room for several definitions of what a social enterprise/business is?
  • Can we recognise that the Grameen approach of leveraging substantial amounts of corporate capital in exchange for the CSR benefits is but one approach to enabling the social economy?
  • Is it not possible that opportunities for social investment in Europe and the US are very different from those that exist in Bangladesh where Grameen was founded?
Join Rod Schwartz, CEO of ClearlySo, in this provocative conversation.